This is a book about two Fergal Keanes. The first part tells in lyrical terms of his boyhood in an Ireland that has since disappeared. His father Eamonn was an actor whose talent was sabotaged by a lifelong love of drink that ruined his marriage and alienated him for many years from his son.
In fact, drink runs like a leitmotif through the book. In Keane’s early days in journalism, one gets the impression that there was hardly a reporter on the Irish papers who was sober long enough to write a story. Practical jokes were common, the victims usually junior journalists. One was sent to a council meeting to deliver to the city manager an important letter about the approaching St Patrick’s Day celebrations. The manager interrupted a speech, heaved with laughter and passed the letter back to the reporter. It read, “My name is John Breen and I want my arse painted green for St Patrick’s Day.”
The Daily Mirror‘s admission that its photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were fakes only highlights the importance of images in this war. It was the Mirror‘s demand for visual evidence to support its informants’ claims of abuse by British soldiers – claims which are likely to prove correct – that led to the faking of the photographs. We should have seen it coming because in no other war have iconic images played such a major role in the outcome or changed public perception so radically.
The Pentagon made it clear from the beginning of the war against Iraq that there would be no censorship. What it failed to say was that war correspondents might well find themselves in a situation similar to that in Korea in 1950. This was described by one American correspondent as the military saying: “You can write what you like – but if we don’t like it we’ll shoot you.” The figures in Iraq tell a terrible story. Fifteen media people dead, with two missing, presumed dead. If you consider how short the campaign was, Iraq will be notorious as the most dangerous war for journalists ever. This is bad enough. But – and here we tread on delicate ground – it is a fact that the largest single group of them appear to have been killed by the American military.
Before Tony Blair joins the new crusaders trying to impose a “regime change”, a Western “settlement” on Iraq, he should at least look at the historical facts that explain the rise of nationalist leaders such as Saddam Hussein. And while he is at it, since he is good at empathy, he might try looking at Britain through Iraqi eyes. Seen from Baghdad, the British have bombed and invaded their country, lied to them, manipulated their borders, imposed on them leaders they did not want, kidnapped ones they did, fixed their elections, used collective terror tactics on their civilians, promised them freedom and then planned to turn their country into a province of India populated by immigrant Punjabi farmers. Small wonder that the author Said Aburish said to me recently: “If you think Saddam Hussein is a hard man to deal with, just wait for the next generation of Iraqi leaders.”